School funding sails out of Senate Finance

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008

An education funding package is ready to move onto the Senate Floor after a speedy ride through the Senate Finance Committee.

Thursday's hearing was House Bill 273's only stop in the Senate and no changes were made.

The measure would put into law several changes to the way schools are funded. It is estimated to inject an extra $180 million into education over the next five years through increases to per-pupil spending and new formulas to accommodate intensive-needs students and the different cost factors between urban and rural schools.

Even so, some say schools will be pinched next year.

The bill represents an additional $118 million on top of the $885 million that's already going to schools in the coming fiscal year.

But only about $49 million of that is new spending since the total also represents one-time money lawmakers injected into schools through the capital budget last year.

School district officials statewide have testified in favor of the bill though most add that they would prefer to see a bigger boost in the base student allocation.

The bill would raise per-pupil spending by $100 a year for the next three years from the current rate of $5,380. Gov. Sarah Palin has asked for a $200 increase but efforts to make that change on the House Floor failed.

Palin's Budget Director Karen Rehfeld predicts the new funding won't be enough to keep pace with the needs of school districts, and they'll be back asking for more money next year.

"Would we prefer the $200? Absolutely. Is it still going to be a good thing if the bill passes the way it is? Absolutely. But I do think districts will be back so it doesn't quite solve that dilemma," Rehfeld said.

Besides the boost to the regular base student allocation, the bill increases funding for intensive-needs students from five times the base student allocation to nine times in 2009 and 13 times in 2011.

The bill also phases in 50 percent of the Institute of Social and Economic Research report's recommendation for district cost factors in 2009 with the remaining 50 percent implemented over the next four years. The district cost factors balance out the differences in the cost of running schools in urban and rural areas.

It also includes a step-down mechanism to ease schools through an abrupt drop in funding when enrollments fall and adds money to pupil transportation.

Taking into account the extra money schools received in the current fiscal year, the Department of Education said the bill would represent $180 million in new spending on schools over the next five years.

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